Right now, many compliance officers are going before the Board, the C-suite, or their manager with their plans for 2021.  Budgets must be approved, priorities determined, and roll-out schedules set.  But how can we realistically plan for 2021?  Our 2020 plans flew out the window last spring, with an unforeseen pandemic throwing the world’s economy into free-fall and sending workers out of their offices and into their living rooms.

2021 is arriving in a cloud of uncertainty.  Though much insecurity exists, there are strategies you can use to keep your planning on-point for a successful year.  Here are ten top tips for getting your 2021 plan right.

No. 1: For Live Training and Meetings, Plan in the Alternative

By now everyone knows that Zoom meetings aren’t the same as being face-to-face, especially when it comes to in-person group training and meetings.  While compliance officers long for in-person events, it is best to plan “in the alternative,” meaning that your plans should work regardless of whether they are in-person, via video conference, or a mix of both.  We’ve been developing an online game called “Compliance Competitor” that will come out in February for use with sales and executive teams (email me for info – kgranthart@sparkcompliance.com).  It is a group game that can be played with groups competing at a table, in a breakout room in Zoom, or a combination of both. 

When you’re planning your training sessions and meetings, prioritize activities and training that can be interactive either in person, on video conference, or both.  By planning early, you’ll avoid that last-minute struggle to shift gears.

No. 2: Take the Business’ Temperature for Compliance and Respond Accordingly

Right now, many people are suffering from profound fatigue.  Enormous stress and headaches have been caused by virus fatigue, reduced budgets, scrambling late into the night to create new protocols, canceled conferences, and products/services that can no longer be sold because of pandemic restrictions. While compliance will always be important, 2021 may not be the year to try to put it at the top of the list – at least not early in the year.

When you talk with your leaders about the compliance program’s priorities for 2021, solicit feedback.  Be open to shifting your plans to make them smaller, recognizing that the business may be straining to simply exist by year-end.

No. 3: Add in Time for Disruption

2020 wreaked havoc on the best-laid plans from 2019.  For 2021, plan for disruption.  Keep your ambitions smaller than they would have been otherwise.  You can always increase your activity if the disruption fails to appear. However, if you’ve planned without disruption in mind, you may appear to have failed or missed your goals by year-end.  Plan for chaos.  If it doesn’t show up, you can be a hero by over-performing. 

No. 4: Consider Culture when Only Some can Return

Western Europe and the United States are likely to push out vaccines to their citizens before the rest of the world.  Even then, higher-risk populations, like healthcare workers and the elderly, are more likely to get them first, leading to disparate populations with immunity.  Some of your company’s workers may get back to the office quickly, while others will almost certainly still be home-bound by the end of 2021.  Additionally, some workers may not be able to return even if they are immunized if their children are still learning from home or if they are taking care of a sick or at-risk relative.

Disparities of this kind may lead to a disrupted culture.  People who are back in the office may re-build bonds more quickly than those still working from home, which may lead to allegations of favoritism.  It’s important to focus on building a cohesive culture of support and equality throughout the company during the difficult transition back to a more normal working environment.  Whistleblower complaints of discrimination and retaliation are likely to rise, so be prepared with the resources you need.  More than anything, plan your communications to encourage a healthy culture of compliance and ethics, no matter where people in the company are working.

No. 5: Spend your 2020 Budget if You Can

Two of Spark Compliance’s clients have asked if they can pre-pay for their 2021 compliance program reviews. That’s because they already know that their budgets, along with every other department at their companies, will be reduced in 2021.  If you’ve got budget now, spend it.  Pre-pay for technology, consulting, legal assistance, ethics and compliance week schwag, or whatever else you’ll need for a successful 2021.

No. 6: Put What You Want in Your 2021 Budget

Even though many companies are cutting back, propose the budget that you need.  If you need new technology to manage your third-parties, ask for it.  If you need a professional risk assessment, leave that in the budget.  While these items may be cut, you’ll be setting yourself up for a more fruitful discussion for your 2022 budget.  The fact that something wasn’t approved in 2021 may be a forceful argument for why it should be approved in 2022. 

People don’t like saying no, and repeated requests (made politely) are likely to eventually receive a yes.  It’s like when a child repeatedly asks for a toy or to have their ears pierced.  By the tenth time they’ve asked, it just feels easier to relent.  Use this to your advantage to set yourself up for success.

No. 7: Keep up Your Networking

The sad truth is that not all businesses will make it through the pandemic.  Whether or not you believe your company is in danger, make 2021 the year that you up your game when it comes to networking.  Counter-intuitively, it may be easier to network while working from home. It isn’t always possible to make time for lunches and coffees when heavy workdays and long commutes suck up time.  Now that most people are at home and looking for a distraction, Teams calls where you catch up with someone in your network may be appealing.

Make a plan for networking this year.  Commit to catching up with one person you know each month, and meeting at least one new person as well.  By the end of the year, you’ll have increased and strengthened your network.  You must build your network before you need it.  Build it now so that if you have to rely on it in a hurry, you’re able to do so.

No. 8: Keep Up Your Skills and Learning< /span>

It always pays to plan ahead, just in case a new job opens up or yours is eliminated.  Take the time to keep your skills up-to-date by attending virtual conferences, earning new certifications, taking online classes (see HERE), and attending webinars.  The legal and regulatory landscape is changing all the time.  By keeping up-to-date now and increasing your knowledge, you’ll be in a great position if you need to move out or want to move up.

No. 9: Plan in Advance for Re-entry Issues

As parts of the world reopen and some people come back to work, there may be pressure to remove safety measures.  If some people are vaccinated and others aren’t, it may be necessary to continue to require masks and social distancing.  This may get difficult towards the end of 2021 if those that are immune want to stop practicing the measures that others need to help keep them safe.  Work with Human Resources and other aligned functions to plan for the re-entry into offices, or how safety measures will be enforced or removed from manufacturing facilities, retail stores, or the shop floor. By having a plan, you can communicate it so people know what to expect, which will make them more likely to accept it.

No. 10:  Remember that 2022 will Arrive

It feels like the stress of 2020 will be with us forever.  All pandemics come to an end, whether it’s the plague of the Middle Ages, the cholera epidemic of the Victorian era, or the Spanish Flu of 1918.  This too will pass, and when it does, things will pick up and the world will emerge from its rest.  Try to enjoy this time, both in your work and your personal life.  2022 will arrive, and while there is no guarantee that it will be “normal” by then, it should be more open. 

2021 will be a year of change, challenge, and opportunity.  By using these strategies now, you’ll ensure it is the best it can be.